The last time Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat face to face, they triumphantly declared that a “new era” had arrived in international relations.
Faced with a Western diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the crisis in Ukraine, the world’s two most powerful autocrats shared a vision of a new world order: one that would better suit the interests of their nations and no longer be dominated by the West.
In a 5,000-word joint statement, the two leaders proclaimed “boundless” friendship and outlined their shared grievances with the United States and its allies.
“The world is experiencing major changes”, said their joint statements, highlighting the “transformation of the architecture of global governance and the world order”.
More than 200 days later, Xi and Putin will meet again at a regional summit in the southeastern Uzbekistan city of Samarkand. A lot has changed, but not necessarily in the way China or Russia anticipated.
Three weeks after meeting Xi in Beijing, and just days after the Winter Olympics ended, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He hoped for a quick victory, but in seven months, Russia is far from winning. Their forces are exhausted, demoralized and they have fled from the territories they have occupied for months.
And that is making China nervous. Having moved ever closer to Moscow under Xi, Beijing has a direct stake in the outcome of the war. A defeated Russia will strengthen the West and make it a less useful and reliable asset in China’s great power rivalry with the US. A weakened Moscow could also provide fewer distractions for the US, thereby allowing Washington to focus more on Beijing.
Xi has a fine line to tread. If it leans too far into helping Russia, China risks Western sanctions and diplomatic blowback that would damage its interests. The reaction would also come at a sensitive time for Xi, who is just weeks away from seeking a rule-breaking third term at the 20th Party Congress.
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